PARIS — In the bad old days of the cold war, to be a military power was to be able to lob a nuclear warhead across a continent or two.
But in the new world of regional conflict and humanitarian rescues, power means being able to land aid workers, troops to support them, food, fuel, jeeps, trucks, bulldozers, medical clinics, communications equipment, and a water purification system the size of an M-1 tank on a narrow, muddy runway in a jungle - quickly.
Only the United States can do it, and that's why Washington can call the shots on sending an international force to Zaire.
Canada, charged by the United Nations to organize a military force to support relief workers aiding thousands of hungry refugees in Zaire, scaled down its recommendations for the mission this week in the face of US objections. Instead, Canada proposed to set up air drops of food and air reconnaissance from a base in nearby Uganda.
Just how many refugees - mainly Hutus from Rwanda - need help remains in dispute. Estimates range from 150,000 to 700,000 in need, with the US endorsing the low end of that range. France and Belgium, both of which have historic and colonial ties in the region, cite higher figures and insist an international force is essential.
But even France insists that it will not participate in any mission unless the US also joins.
The US brings heavy political clout to the table as the world's only superpower. But it also brings technical capacity to relief operations that no other country can match, especially in air lift, intelligence, and communications.
As Europeans continue to slash defense budgets to lower public deficits, that technical gap with the US is getting larger, defense analysts say.
"The US has provided the overwhelming bulk of airlift and logistical capability for all major United Nations peacekeeping and relief operations," says Philip Mitchell, defense analyst for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Most of the world has always looked to the US as the key to a large-scale relief or peacekeeping operation. That was one of the major findings of Bosnia.
"US communication facilities are absolutely vital to link various capitals, military units, and nationalities in such an operation. France knows this as well as anybody, since it has used US airlift capability for some of its own Central African operations and to get French troops at short notice to some of its own colonies, such as Chad."
One example of the US technical edge in moving people and cargo is the C-17 Globemaster III military transport plane, built by the St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas Corp., and currently available only to the US Air Force.
The C-17 can carry three armored vehicles or 85 tons of food and cargo, land on a short, rugged airfield in less than 3,000 feet, and unload 2-1/2 times faster than any other airlifter. Since it can refuel in the air and at night, it can also go anywhere in the world. President Clinton has referred to it as "the world's best moving van."
In one week, during the most intense period of the US deployment for the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, 12 C-17s flew 142 missions carrying 685 passengers and 2,501 tons of supplies and cargo. From December 1995 to January, C-17s flew 29 percent of US missions and carried a third of the passengers and nearly half the cargo.
Even though it was built to support Soviet MIG jet fighters, the landing field at the Bosnian town of Tuzla, where the US military is based, is too narrow to accommodate conventional heavy transporters, such as the C-130.
The C-17 lands and unloads on the narrow ramps of this airfield with ease. Other heavy transporters could land in Tuzla, but could not unload without shutting down the airport. The C-17 carries four to five times the payload of the C-130 (the Lockheed-Martin plane most widely used by NATO allies).
When floods bottled up 20,000 US troops and tanks on the wrong side of the Sava River, three C-17s rushed 25 pontoon bridge sections to Hungary to link into a temporary Army bridge.
THERE are other means to get men and equipment to a trouble spot, but they are slower and less reliable. During the Gulf war, when US airlift capacity was totally engaged in getting its own forces to the front, France leased commercial ferries to get heavy equipment to Saudi Arabia. France has also leased Ukrainian transport aircraft for deployments in Africa.
After the Gulf war, Europeans stepped up collaboration on a Future Large Aircraft (FLA) project to help bridge this gap, but France has dropped funding for the project out of its 1997 military budget.
"Without strategic airlift, you can take the word rapid out of the Joint Rapid Deployment Force [in Bosnia]. We cannot always rely on the United States for assistance or wait to hire an aircraft from someone. It is in an area we need to address and we need something like the C-17," said a senior British defense official cited in the weekly Defense News.
Since the Gulf war, Europeans have also signaled a strong interest in developing an independent source of military intelligence. French officials criticized the US for not releasing more intelligence information during that war, and have since launched a European consortium to bridge the gap.
Helios 1, the first European reconnaissance satellite system, is now on line, but is limited by an inability to see through clouds. The Helios 2 project could be jeopardized by German defense cuts, according to analysts. French officials insist they expect the Germans to fulfill commitments to this project.
But defense analysts say that the intelligence gap is not as critical as the airlift gap in carrying out a large-scale relief operation.
"For operations such as Rwanda, the US is not unwilling to share aerial reconnaissance," defense analyst Mitchell says. "But Western nations will always have a fairly limited airlift capacity. They don't have the manpower or finances to take on board a C-17 or [larger] C-5."